"Before My Time" Liner Notes - by Pat Kirtley
There was a time when most of the contestants at the National Fingerstyle Guitar competition in Winfield Kansas were amateurs in the truest sense of the word-people who played guitar simply for the love of it, and lived day to day lives outside of the music world. In recent years, as word has gotten around and acoustic guitar has experienced a revitalization, that has been changing, with the winners now more likely to be working professional performers. Even so, still rare are players who come away with top honors on their first try. Todd Hallawell walked up to the stage in 1997 and won "the big one" his first time out. He did it by playing with the verve and consistency that are his trademarks, and his enthusiasm showed a trait that goes back to Winfield's origins-playing for the love of it.
Todd's Winfield-winning entries (Tico Tico and Leola Kay for the preliminaries, Brazil and Jiffy Jamin the finals) appear in this collection, and show some of the varietal flavors of the current fingerstyle world, stretching from a modern Jerry Reed tune to a 1930's Latin American pop hit. In his performance of these tunes he demonstrates an innate sense of musicality and variety. It is
those qualities-not the mere flash of executing difficult licks and passages-that keep listeners' attention and bring satisfaction after the notes stop flying. Another of Todd's strengths is years of live performance experience, sometimes as a solo artist, and sometimes with saxophonist Jeff Ervin, who collaborates in duets on four of the selections here.
Todd begins with his own Leola Kay, a joyous piece he wrote for his wife that flows with the stylistic touch of Leo Kottke at his best. Next is Jerry Reed's swinging Jiffy Jam, where Todd uses the sonic qualities of the half-an-octave-lower baritone guitar to great effect. The Last Steam Engine Train is an old tune that was unearthed as fingerpicking guitar fare by John Fahey and Leo Kottke in the late 60's, and has been an acoustic jam session staple ever since. Here Todd and long-time compatriot Greg Sarena pour on momentum with a fine duet that meshes the sound of Todd's McCollum baritone guitar against Greg's hammering rhythm like gears on a driving wheel. The poignant Cydney is another of Todd's original pieces, and deviates from the typical "song form" with ever increasing intensity, showing his formidable compositional skills. Flat Foot Floogee is a big band tune from the 40's that comes off as just plain fun for Todd's one man band, with a multi-horn section put together by Jeff Ervin, and some neat solos by flatpicker John Moore.
I was pleased and honored when Todd wanted to do a rendition of one of my previously unrecorded tunes, one that I had carried around on the guitar for years, called Miss You Like Crazy. The melancholy feeling that brought this jazz waltz into being comes to life with Todd's fine arrangement featuring intertwining counter-melodies between guitar and tenor sax. Braziland Tico Tico are two great Latin tunes, with a difficulty rating that warns off all but the most intrepid guitar adventurists. Todd is undaunted, and makes them roll from the strings like butter.
Ballad 1 and Ballad 2 are, for me, the highlight of this collection. They are previously unrecorded works by Russian guitarist and composer Nikita Koshkin, and enjoy a fine debut here through Todd's thoughtful interpretation. They are followed by a lighthearted ensemble rendition of another Koshkin piece, Bluesman's Tears, where Jeff conjures up a breezy flute-and-reed section, and plays a fine solo. Reedology is arguably the quintessential Jerry Reed tune. Written around 1970 and presented on a mainly vocal-based album by this twentieth-century master of guitar composition, it remained largely unknown to guitarists until it was transcribed - decoded is probably a better term - a decade later by John Knowles.
When I first heard Music for a Found Harmonium, it seemed familiar. I was sure I had heard it before, and suspected that it was adapted from Mozart or something of that era. I was surprised to learn that it was a modern piece, written around 1991 by British art-rock avatar Simon Jeffes who first recorded it with his eclectic group Penguin Café Orchestra. I was even more surprised to learn from Todd that this tune is one of the current favorites for round-the-campfire jamming at the Winfield festival, which is where he picked it up. Hey, what ever happened to those easy tunes like Cripple Creek and Salty Dog? Joining Todd here for a round of solo-swapping are Gordon Acri on banjo, John Moore on guitar, and David Peters on mandolin.
Todd even let me play along on a tune, and the set ends with our duet of the Quaker hymn Simple Gifts. He was uncompromising as an arranger and producer, exploring myriad possibilities while we worked out parts over a couple of days, but to his credit, the final result still has that most important quality-simplicity.
At the end of listening to the set here you realize-especially if you've ever considered entering a competition yourself-why Todd triumphed at Winfield. It's not about hot licks or fancy flourishes, but more about getting difficult things to flow with ease, and making music that any listener can appreciate. The most respected winners of musical competitions always seem to do it that way.
Pat Kirtley, February 1999